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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 1st August 2011

This has been the stillest day I can remember for a very long time. If the sky had been clear, it would have been incredibly hot. As it was, the almost complete cloud cover meant it was just rather warm and very humid. Not really a good day for an athletic walk so it was just as well that there were only four of us and we were all happy to settle for a stroll through some woodland with plenty of time for looking around.

With no sound of any movement from the wind, it was possible to hear the, I suspect, thousands of bees feeding on the many different wild flowers but, in a sign that the second half of summer is underway, there was plenty of fungi to look at.

It reminded me that it was the right time to check on my favourite patch of pine woodland to see if the Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, had appeared. I thought I was a bit early as the last time I saw it, in 2009, it was the 2nd of September but, to my surprise, quite a lot of what I found had already gone passed its best.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

I found one very good example of why this distinctive red and white mushroom is called ‘fly agaric’. The cap curls up as the mushroom matures and creates a saucer shape and, it is said, you could put milk in this saucer and poison the flies. But, as you can see, this example had curled up into more of a bowl than a saucer. I also saw the earlier stages, both the tight ball that marks the start of its growth and the flatter open cap with its distinctive white raised lumps on the bright red background.

I’m not, in any way, a fungi expert. There are a lot of them, fungi that is not experts, and the books I’ve read aren’t that helpful when it comes to identification. They all seem to take the same line. Having taken your money for the book and spent a hundred or so pages giving details of the different features of mushrooms, they finish by saying that the best advice is to go out with an expert and learn about the different species in the field and not from a book.

But, you can’t really misidentify the Amanita muscaria, though that is not what makes it my favourite example of the fruiting body of a fungus. I like it because it gives a good example of the situation with fungi in general and because it gives an important lesson about the human race’s attitude to psychoactive substances.

There’s a tendency in the UK to think that mushrooms are either edible or deadly poisonous. In reality, if you took all the different species of mushrooms and laid them in a long line arranged from tastiest to deadliest, the edible ones would form only the first few inches of the line and the deadly ones would be the last few with the vast majority being innocuous but not pleasant to eat. But, there would be some that didn’t fit the line being toxic when raw but edible if properly prepared.

I’ve read that Amanita muscaria can be eaten but it involves boiling it for three lots of five minutes with a complete change to the water each time before frying it. I’m not sure I can be bothered with all that and I wouldn’t want to chance the stomach upset the raw mushroom is said to deliver. Also, I certainly wouldn’t want the hallucinations for which it is famous.

A couple of years ago, I made a video about the fly agaric. You can see it embedded in the A to Z page of this site or directly on YouTube so I won’t repeat what it says about the unique properties of the active ingredients. I was concerned about some of the comments being attached to the video on YouTube so I disabled them. I may be old fashioned but, it seems, some people can’t express themselves these days without using words that I didn’t want appearing on anything I had been involved with.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

That’s a shame because it looks as though I was suppressing the voices of those who think that taking psychoactive substances is, at least, harmless and, for some people, a noble way to extend human consciousness. I don’t mind if people think those things, people should be able to make their own choices about what they put into their bodies, though I think they are completely wrong. It seems to me a lazy way to go about life. Humans are capable of experiencing ecstatic joy and of thinking about all the questions surrounding our existence but that takes a lot of effort. There are chemicals that can trigger both these responses in the human brain.

People using psychoactive substances are trying to shortcut the process by supplying the necessary chemicals from external sources rather than doing the work required to produce those chemicals naturally within their own brains. I’m not the least bit interested in the alleged insights afforded to the users of these substances because, by using them, they tell me they are lazy and not willing to engage in the real world with all its challenges and setbacks.